Today, the 11th November, I’m going to step to the side and invite you to remember one pretty extraordinary ordinary soldier, a Lance bombardier Tom Lister from Lancashire.
You, like me, may have grown up believing that Earl Haig started the British Legion and indeed, he was responsible for creating the environment which led to the amalgamation of disparate charitable efforts for ex-soldiers to form the Legion after the Great War. In fact, after he finished active service Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-soldiers and remained more popular among them until his death than revisionist historians would have us believe, (although his reputation has been recently somewhat restored with the publication of some more balanced biographies).
Back to Tom Lister. At the end of the Great War not a family in Britain was unaffected by the loss of 888,000 souls and the 1.75m who suffered some form of temporary or permanent disability. The Government was unable or unwilling to alleviate their physical and financial distress so Tom Lister rolled up his sleeves and decided to set about improving their lot. He himself was invalided out in 1916 and after the war started to raise funds to buy tables and beds. He convinced landlords to let their dilapidated buildings to ex-servicemen and widows conditional on him attending to repairs and maintenance and he persuaded Burtons to supply suits for the men to use for interviews. He also gained access to old drill halls to use as soup kitchens for his British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers.
Subsequently, Earl Haig persuaded Lister and other organisations to meet and discuss consolidating their efforts into what was to become, in 1921, the British Legion. The Unity Conference was held at the Queens Hall in Langham Place where a draft constitution was adopted. On May 15th, 1921 at 9am at the Cenotaph, the shrine to their dead comrades, the ex-Service men sealed their agreement. The Legion was born.
The Legion was formed with the amalgamation of four associations:
The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (1916).
The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (1917).
The Comrades of The Great War (1917).
The Officers' Association (1920).
The amalgamation of these four diverse bodies can be attributed largely to Field Marshall Earl Haig and Tom Lister By the time of the Legion's formation in 1921, the tradition of an annual Two Minute Silence in memory of the dead had been established. The first ever Poppy Appeal was held that year, with the first Poppy Day was on 11 November 1921.
Lister became chairman of the RBL until 1927, was appointed CBE in 1927 and was knighted in 1961. He died in 1966. As I said, an extraordinary ordinary man and I’m proud to say, a fellow Gunner.
Moreover, we are a country that throws up Tom Lister’s in happy abundance, not just working for ex-servicemen, and there are a great many indeed that do, but throughout the charitable universe. Something we can all join in giving thanks for and to be proud of. It’s one of the things that we actually have left that binds us together and that politicians have no claim on.